Midwest Regional winner: In Illinois, Administer Justice helps the poor get their day in court
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ELGIN and GENEVA, Ill.—Bruce Strom swore he’d never be poor. Growing up as a pastor’s kid in a parsonage, he watched his dad draw a meager salary and make hospital visits after the phone rang in the middle of the night. Strom decided to pursue a law career, where he’d never struggle to make ends meet.
Life went according to his dreams. He graduated from law school, married, and started a successful legal firm. If he took calls for help at night, Strom charged his clients 25 percent extra to call him at home—on top of his regular $300 per hour fee. He argued a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Back home, he was a respected church leader and gave generously from his income.
Yet Strom became angry about one area he and his wife couldn’t control—they had seven years of infertility. Strom thought, “God owed me. I mean, I was doing everything right. And it just didn’t seem fair.” But the seeming injustice of infertility started him thinking about injustice in the lives of the poor: “Their pain was different than mine, but their pain was just as real.”
With assistance from in vitro fertilization, Strom’s wife finally had twin boys in the summer of 1999. Eight months later, Strom founded Administer Justice (AJ), a nonprofit providing free legal services to the poor of Kane and DuPage counties, suburbs just west of Chicago. Since then over 40,000 people have come to the organization seeking legal help: The elderly, single parents, and orphaned and homeless children are frequently victims of fraud and abuse, but often don’t understand the law or can’t afford a lawyer.
Administer Justice helps those who often have nowhere else to turn. Its services are free for anyone with an income under 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Administer Justice has a staff of 12 but a network of over 250 attorneys who volunteer to advise or represent clients as part of their pro bono work. (For clients with slightly higher incomes, AJ offers free consultations and will represent them in court at a reduced rate.) AJ is explicitly Christian but doesn’t require volunteer attorneys to profess Christ.
Clients come to the organization’s headquarters in Elgin, Ill., for help with tax disputes, identity theft, foreclosures, custody disputes, divorce mediation, immigration law, and more. AJ doesn’t attempt to represent most clients in court, but instead focuses on coaching them to represent themselves. Often they simply need counsel in overcoming fear of their situation, interpreting a notice filled with legalese, and understanding what steps to take in response.
On the day I visited, for example, 24-year-old Jose Robledo of Carpentersville had a problem: An ex-girlfriend had custody of their 4-year-old son. He had fallen $660 behind on child support payments while temporarily unemployed and hadn’t seen his son for a month. He wanted to establish a new visitation agreement, or petition the court for full custody, and an attorney outlined for him the first step he needed to take: Get his ex-girlfriend’s address so she could be sent a legal statement.
Much of the advice AJ offers is similarly unspectacular but real. When a client arrives at AJ for an initial consultation, he or she receives a folder with a handwritten note of encouragement, a list of area churches, and Bible verses such as “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” When clients are distressed about their circumstances, AJ staff use the opportunity to pray with them or encourage them to consider how God may be at work in their lives for greater good.
They have plenty of challenging opportunities: One of AJ’s first clients was a Brazilian immigrant who had mothered a child with her fiancé, a U.S. citizen. When the fiancé died in a car accident, his family took the boy and placed the mother under a voodoo curse. She came to AJ in tremendous fear, but after Strom explained voodoo’s falsity and God’s love for her, she professed faith in Christ. A phone call to police got the child back.
In another case, AJ attorneys discovered an employer pocketing medical insurance premiums of immigrant workers. In a third case, a man stopped for a traffic violation inexplicably found himself under arrest and stuck with a $16,000 IRS bill: Someone had stolen his identity. AJ also runs a low-income tax clinic with the help of an IRS grant: People sometimes arrive with unopened IRS letters they’re too scared to read.
Last year, AJ served people from 27 countries of origin. Kimberly Spagui, a staff attorney who also runs a private practice, handles the organization’s immigration clients, many of whom come to AJ for help with tax or custody disputes. AJ lawyers learn their status while gently probing their situation: AJ can help undocumented immigrants obtain a visa if they have a relative in the United States or are victims of abuse or trafficking. Spagui also works with trafficking victims who often “come in lawfully with a visa, under a promise that they’re going to be working in a certain place. And then they end up working in a sweatshop ... or in the sex trade.”
Listen to a report on Administer Justice that aired on The World and Everything in It:
• 2011 income: $1.61 million
• 2011 expenses: $1.68 million
• Salary of executive director Bruce Strom: $70,000
• Employees: three full-time, nine part-time
• Volunteers: A network of 250 volunteer attorneys and 450 volunteer non-attorneys who help with mailings and publicity, pray with clients, and bake fresh cookies to place in the organization’s waiting room
• Website: administerjustice.org
Inside the red brick Kane County Courthouse in Geneva, wooden benches line a tall, dimly lit hallway. Here, outside the brass-handled door of Room 150—mortgage foreclosure court—AJ staff attorney Pam Tan sits at a small table every Friday to cheer up troubled homeowners.
Last year banks filed nearly 5,000 foreclosure cases in this court. Many homeowners arrive pro se—without a lawyer—and hope the judge will explain what to do. But the judge isn’t supposed to offer legal advice, so he often sends them to Tan for free coaching on what papers to file.
A man in a bomber jacket, Indian immigrant Syed Husain, missed a deadline for filing a court paper and asked Tan what to do next. Husain, 54 and married with two teenagers at home, lost his travel agency job and was unemployed for two years. Tan told him, “Don’t pay for loan modification forms. They charge you $3,000 [or] $4,000 to fill out forms you could fill out yourself.”
Husain is temporarily rehired: “Less pay, of course. More bills, less pay. It’s a sign of the time.” He has a mortgage for over $250,000 but said his four-bedroom house in Aurora isn’t worth that much. His bank twice rejected an application for loan modification. Asked what he’ll do if the judge allows foreclosure, Husain smiled and shrugged. —D.J.D.
For most of her life, Maria has lived in fear. Born into an impoverished family of nine in Mexico, her father died when she was 5, and when she was 10 her mother abandoned the family for more than a year. When she returned, she was abusive and made Maria drop out of school. There was barely enough money for corn, much less shoes or underwear.
Maria longed for escape. (WORLD is withholding her full name to protect the safety of her family in Mexico.) An older brother she loved had immigrated to the United States, but she was only about 15 years old and had no legal way of obtaining a visa. So she asked a coyote (a human smuggler) to take her across the border.
The coyote arranged for her to hitch a car ride with another family through a checkpoint, where immigration officials overlooked the extra passenger. In Texas she found not freedom but a nightmare: The coyote took her to a hotel room, raped her, and handed her over to the owner of a Houston cantina. There she was expected to work off her smuggling debt.
The cantina owner compelled Maria to serve beer to drunken men, drink with them, dance, and offer herself to their wishes. Marijuana and cocaine were rampant. Maria cried and looked up at the sky, praying for escape and strength to carry on.
She was able to call a cousin, and after three weeks in the cantina, he picked her up and brought her to his house for protection. But before long the coyote showed up with a group of friends or relatives and surrounded the house, brandishing guns and daggers. He demanded $1,500 and threatened to take Maria back by force if she didn’t pay. Her family members scraped together enough money to pay off the coyote.
Maria moved to northeast Illinois to be near two siblings, and later married. For a decade she kept mostly silent about the abuses she endured, not realizing they were crimes, and afraid of revealing her illegal status. She has suffered from depression and anxiety as ugly memories resurface.
It wasn’t until Maria came to Administer Justice in 2012 and spoke to immigration attorney Kimberly Spagui that she realized she had legal recourse. The organization helped her apply for a special visa available to trafficking victims and file a report against the coyote and cantina that enslaved her. The Houston Police Department is investigating.
Maria, now 25, has obtained her visa and a driver’s license, and will be able to apply for permanent residency in two years. She’s taking classes to learn English and has received counseling from a local Roman Catholic church she attends.
“Now I am much closer to God,” she said: “I bring my daughters to church. We participate in church activities with the women and the youth programs. I am thankful for all the blessings I have now and that I am able to stay in the United States.” —D.J.D.